Ah, the sweet smell of overreactions and irrational expectations — it must be March in the New England area. I am more than happy to partake for the fifteenth year in a row by stating that Jackie Bradley Jr. is about to have an MVP-caliber season, based solely off his first 15 plate appearances this spring. I am fully aware of the scorching-hot temperature of this take, especially given Bradley’s history of inconsistent play, but I refuse to let proven facts get in the way of my irrationality.
No, I don’t actually think that JBJ is going to be the MVP on what’s expected to be another championship-worthy team. But equipped with a new swing, coming off a solid postseason performance that included an ALCS MVP trophy and with what may be the lowest expectations of his career, the timing could not be better for Bradley. I just can’t help but think that after all the years of saying, “hey, maybe this will be the year,” that maybe this will actually be the year.
Personally, spring training stats mean next to nothing to me and I don’t think anyone considers this month of exhibitions to be a stat-padding experience. It’s more about re-establishing timing, making sure things worked on in the offseason will translate and building confidence — which is exactly what Bradley has been doing. It is at least worth noting that JBJ’s career-best 2016 campaign (149 hits, 26 HR, 87 RBI) was prefaced by the best spring of his career. In turn, his abysmal performance last spring (7 hits in 46 at-bats) translated to the worst first half of his career as an everyday starter (.210 / .297 / .345 with 78 strikeouts). The numbers themselves may not mean all that much but it can certainly set the tone. In the case of Bradley — where confidence at the plate seems to be in short supply at times — I don’t care if we build a statue in Fort Myers to commemorate his 2019 spring training success if it means he will contribute consistently this season.
I can’t be the only one who is euphoric hearing that the new swing was at least partially crafted by J.D. Martinez and the slugger’s swing coach, as the Eagle Tribune’s Chris Mason reported recently. Bradley is not coming off the best statistical season of his career (.234 / .314 / .403, 13 HR, 59 RBI), but we know he was hitting the ball hard for most of the year. He finished 20th in the league in average exit velocity (91.8 mph), per Baseball Savant, which ranked him third on the Red Sox behind only Martinez and Mookie Betts (duh). Baseball Savant also had Bradley at 13th in hard hit percentage (49.6 percent), just behind Betts (50.2 percent, 11th) and his new mentor Martinez (52.3 percent, 4th). Bradley’s problem wasn’t how hard he was hitting the ball, it was where he was hitting it with a little bit of luck mixed in. Even though he was top 20 in two important newer-age stats, he ranked 79th among qualified players in batting average on balls in play at .299 while Martinez (.368) was first and Mookie (.368) third.
Maybe it’s his otherworldly ability in centerfield that tricks you into thinking he can literally do anything, but I have always felt like Bradley has what it takes to be successful at the plate. The flashes of success he’s had prove that statement true. At the very least, he seems to have more potential than his career line of .234/.314/.403 (92 wRC+) would suggest. It’s just so rare that he’s able to put it together all at once, which is what makes him such a frustrating player to watch.
There are very few players who have been able to “put it all together” better than Martinez over the last couple years. Since 2016, he has the highest slugging percentage (.617) among qualified players in the league, the second-highest BABIP (.363), the sixth-most home runs (110) and the seventh-most RBI (302), per Fangraphs. He has found success through dedication to his craft and belief in statistics that were not available or calculated 10 years ago (like launch angle and average exit velocity). He seems to be preaching these beliefs to any of his teammates who inquire and the smart ones (like Betts and Bradley) have been listening. It’s clear Bradley’s approach for the first half of last season just wasn’t working, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he turned it on after spending time around someone as methodical about hitting as Martinez. After hitting .210/.297/.345 with a .265 BABIP through the first half of the season, Bradley posted a slash line of .269/.340/.487 over his final 58 plate appearances in the regular season with a BABIP of .352. A World Series title and an offseason later, he has to be itching to get back to it. His approach this spring has certainly indicated that anyway.
If you’ve already given up on Bradley because he wasn’t who you expected him to be when he got called up in 2013 at age 23, I guess I can understand that. I think you’re wrong, but I understand where the belief comes from. I kind of like the idea of Bradley eventually winning those people over just like he effortlessly chases down fly balls anyway. Here’s hoping that this is his year.